Is Kentucky Jockey Club The Derby Key?

Kentucky Jockey Club runner-up Mor Spirit rebounded to win the Grade I Los Alamitos Futurity. Photo by Benoit Photography

Kentucky Jockey Club runner-up Mor Spirit rebounded to win the Grade I Los Alamitos Futurity. Photo by Benoit Photography

Those intrigued by Thoroughbred racing and its lifetime learning curve for its fans and participants tend to love little things that work.

It’s a sport and endeavor that can be incredibly frustrating. One can do everything right in assessing an individual race, but many times, things do not work out. There is no defense against bad luck.

If your horse stumbles, hesitates at the starting gate or has the horrendous luck to be behind a rival that either stops suddenly or takes an unexpected left-or-right turn, all of your hard and informed work will likely be wasted on the day.

But in racing, it often pays to have a long and forgiving memory. Hard work seemingly wasted because of tough luck or human error one day could reward the bettor or fan later on.

Patience is important. As one of my favorite race adages on the handling of Thoroughbreds advises: “If you don’t wait on them, they’ll make you wait.”

Which brings me to one of my favorite handicapping angles: the key race.

Think of such a race as a gift that keeps on giving.

A key race is one from which several of its participants return to either win their subsequent race (or races), perform well in a string of races or step up to flourish in higher-level contests. The importance from a betting standpoint, or for a fan who simply wants to keep an eye out for all rising contenders, is to assess just how good that individual race might be.

The 2015 running of the Grade II Kentucky Jockey Club (“KJC”) at Churchill Downs comes to mind as a key race, at least for now. The 1 1/16-mile contest, at this point, has the look of a key event on the road to this year’s Kentucky Derby on Saturday, May 7.

The November 28 race, part of the track’s “Stars of Tomorrow II” program for 2-year-olds, was won over a sloppy surface by John C. Oxley’s Airoforce, who made his debut over the main track following a narrow loss in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf on the Keeneland Grass. The Mark Casse-trained Airoforce triumphed over favored Mor Spirit, a Bob Baffert trainee who had shipped from California, and Churchill Downs-based Mo Tom, who won the Street Sense on the opening day of the track’s Fall Meet.

The Mark Casse-trained Airoforce has not competed since the Kentucky Jockey Club but is training sharply toward a planned 2016 debut in the Grade III Sam F. Davis Stakes at Tampa Bay Downs on February 13.

Mor Spirit and Mo Tom, on the other hand, rebounded from their November setbacks with significant victories in good races.

The former, who won the Grade I Los Alamitos Futurity on December 19, is currently four-time Kentucky Derby winner Bob Baffert’s best hope to succeed Kentucky Derby and Triple Crown winner and 2015 Horse of the Year American Pharoah. Mor Spirit’s stretch-running victory under three-time Kentucky Derby-winning jockey Gary Stevens back home in Southern California enhanced both Mor Spirit’s reputation and the assessment of the overall quality of his previous outing at Churchill Downs.

Mo Tom, owned by the family owner Tom Benson of the New Orleans Saints, validated his strong performance in the mud in Louisville with a next-out win in the Grade III Lecomte Stakes on January 16 at Fair Grounds. The Tom Amoss-trained son of Uncle Mo turned back stablemate Tom’s Ready in a finish that was a repeat of their 1-2 run in Churchill’s Street Sense.

Tom’s Ready had finished eighth in the Kentucky Jockey Club in the previous run and might not have cared for the mud in Louisville. He remains winless in three head-to-head races against Mo Tom, but trainer Dallas Stewart has saddled the runner-up in two of the past three Kentucky Derbys and Tom’s Ready bears watching over the 100 days as a candidate to run well at his home track on Derby Day.

Expect three more horses from the 13-horse Kentucky Jockey Club field to return with good efforts in their first runs since November.

Gun Runner’s fourth-place finish for trainer Steve Asmussen was, in my view, a better-than-it-looked effort in only his third career start. He worked a fast five furlongs on January 26 at New Orleans’ Fair Grounds, which is often a sign for runners from the an Asmussen stable notable for a rarity of fast times in morning drills. Asmussen said after the work that Gun Runner’s 2016 debut would come in the February 20 Risen Star at Fair Grounds.

Just behind Gun Runner in the KJC was Annual Report, the fifth-place finisher and stablemate to the unbeaten and highly-regarded Mohaymen, winner of the Grade II Remsen at Aqueduct. The Kiaran McLaughlin-trained Annual Report won the Grade II Belmont Futurity and the wet track could have been a factor in his disappointing KJC run. The guess here is that McLaughlin will keep Mohaymen and Annual Report separated on the “Road to the Kentucky Derby,” with the latter likely to hit the road for opportunities in Kentucky Derby prep races.

The Kentucky Jockey Club, run for the first time in 1920, has produced only two winners of the Kentucky Derby. Real Quiet ran third in the 1997 KJC and won the Derby for Baffert the following spring, while WinStar Farm’s 2010 Derby winner Super Saver won both races for trainer Todd Pletcher and jockey Calvin Borel.

The 2015 KJC is intriguing at this point because the limited number of its participants that have returned to run have performed very well. The next three to four weeks will tell us more as we are right at the “100 days ’til Derby” mark on the calendar.

But, so far, no American Pharoah or clear front-runner has emerged on this early stage on the journey to Kentucky Derby Day. The roster of promising hopefuls appears fairly deep and, for the moment, it would be a good idea to keep the 2015 Kentucky Jockey Club at the top of mind while assessing serious contenders for Derby 142.

The November race beneath the Twin Spires, as much as Derby prep to this point, has the potential to be a key to the 2016 Run for the Roses. VT